There is an old adage about football in the Southeastern Conference: “to win games you’ve got to run the ball and stop the run.” Another adage is that “defense wins championships.” Auburn people know these sayings are still true today even in the era of spread offenses and wide-open passing attacks.
The sayings also applied in an era of football even older than the birth of the SEC in 1933. In the early days of Southern football, the teams of more than a dozen universities played in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and football was a physical, hard-nosed sport played by young men in leather helmets and uniforms with little padding. Passing attempts were a fairly common occurrence, but games were won by running the ball and stopping the run.
Perhaps no team in the history of Auburn football embodied this rule more than the 1913 team, which was led by Hall of Fame coach Mike Donahue. A former quarterback at Yale, a powerhouse program of that day, Donahue brought a rugged Eastern-style football to Auburn when he arrived as the new head football coach in 1904.
His offense was built off the inside dive play ran by an alternating stable of powerful fullbacks that bludgeoned opposing defenses. That staple play was then countered by sweeps from speedy halfbacks and an occasional pass or run from the quarterback.
On defense, Donahue ran a 7-2-2 defense that featured larger linemen and “smashing ends” whose assignment as to get into the backfield quickly and disrupt the opposing offenses — who often ran reverses and plays with two or even three pitches of the ball – before the play could start. Donahue’s aggressive defense was a powerful response to the “open”offenses” favored in this era by coaches such as Glen “Pop” Warner.
By 1913, Donahue had his program well-established and had all the players needed to field a dominating football team, perhaps the most dominating in Auburn history. The team of a little over 20 players was led by star halfback and team captain Kirk Newell. Newell had blazing speed and, though small in stature, a powerful lower body. His speed and leg strength were developed by a hobby of chasing rabbits as a young boy.
Led by Newell, who gained more than 1700 yards in just 8 games, Auburn went undefeated against a very difficult schedule, outscored its opponents by the amazing margin of 223-13, while playing only two games in Auburn.
Auburn’s finest victory was in the season-ending game against the University of Georgia, played in Atlanta. At stake in the game for the winner was the SIAA championship. Georgia was led by halfback Bob McWhorter, who combined speed and power with the size of a present-day running back, and was a threat to score on every run. McWhorter, a four-time All-Southern selection, was the very first Southern player named to an All-American team as a senior in 1913. Yet after Georgia scored first on a long pass play, Auburn was able to control McWhorter’s running and cruised to a 21-7 victory. While McWhorter was held to just 50 yards rushing, Newell ran for over 100 yards and Auburn’s fullbacks accounted for its 3 scores. And with the game and championship won, the students rushed the field and carried the players off on their shoulders, singing “Glory, glory, dear old Auburn.”
While there were no national championship selectors in 1913, and certainly no newspaper editors in the North that would recognize Auburn as a national champion, the 1913 team took pride in its undefeated season, conference championship, and being named “Champions of the South” by regional newspapers.
However, this Auburn team has subsequently been named a national champion for 1913 by six national championship selectors. Among these is Richard Billingsley, of the Billingsley Report, whose mathematical system for determining a college football champion was used in the BCS formula and who is an NCAA-recognized selector. With this award, Auburn’s 1913 team is the very first team in the South named a national champion by any NCAA-recognized selector. There is a book published in 1992 on the centennial of the Auburn football program by Wayne Hester titled, “Where Tradition Began.” From the first football game played in the Deep South to the first national championship by a Southern team, that title holds true. Auburn is where Southern football tradition began. And it should be celebrated.
In an interview given to The War Eagle Reader last year, Billingsley noted that “My national championship for Auburn in 1913 is a very valid national championship.” He noted that the Athletic Departments for Texas A&M University, the University of Mississippi, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Oklahoma have all claimed national championship seasons based on his rankings. Although both Harvard and the University of Chicago also claim national championships for the 1913 season, Billingsley told The War Eagle Reader that “In my mind, Auburn played a harder schedule and performed above expectations.”
Yet this great, dominant team, its players and Hall of Fame coach, are overlooked by most Auburn fans, as if the bruises, injuries, and blood spilt on the gridiron by these players for the glory of Auburn is not worthy of all the honor and respect it is due simply because it occurred just over a century ago. In my view, the opposite should be true. This great team, composed of rural farm boys, many of whom were greenhorns to the sport and who had never seen a football game before beginning practice, bested college teams composed of players hand-picked from local high schools that were already playing the game. This 1913 Tiger team ranks with the best teams in Auburn history and it should receive all the respect and recognition from Auburn’s Athletic Department and its fans that it deserves by raising a national championship banner in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and including it with all the other championships that Auburn chooses to “acknowledge” in signage on the stadium.
Read more about Auburn’s 1913 team in the Auburn’s Unclaimed National Championship book.